The august Egyptians had pyrimads. The ancient Romans had aqueducts. The bloodthirsty Vikings had longships. Some historical civilizations are so well-known, almost anyone with even a passing interest in the past would be able to fire off their basic backstory and list of traits.
In fact, someone with only casual experience in history may think that (because of the intense focus that some civilizations garner), the history of the world is made up of only a few powerful empires, and that everyone else is unimportant.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Oftentimes, a civilization will be incredibly influential and important, but won’t receive a lot of discussion. Normally, this is because there’s nothing left to discuss.
These vanished ancient societies leave large gaps in our understanding. History is, at best, an inexact science, and can best be imagined as a book with several pages missing. Some of the lost cultures and mysterious historical civilizations that we know the least about probably have some of the most interesting stories to tell. Instead, we’re left wanting, our minds full of curiosity and wonder.
The word “Clovis” is now nearly synonymous with one type of archeological artifact in particular: arrowheads. This is because the Clovis people littered an entire continent with them. The Clovis appear to be the first truly dominant and expansionist civilization in North America, but very little is known about them.
They spread across the majority of North America (and parts of Central America) within a few thousand years after humans first came to the continent, leaving behind their trademark weapons but very few other clues. No one is sure exactly what happened to this culture, whether it died out or simply assimilated into future civilizations.
The Maya are one of the more famous ancient civilizations, but weirdly that doesn’t mean that we know too much about them. The South American jungle setting of their culture means that much of the evidence left behind has been reclaimed by nature, leaving modern archeologists and anthropologists with more questions than answers.
We know the Mayans constructed some architectural wonders and created a truly impressive calendar, but we don’t know where they all disappeared to. The Mayan Empire appears to have collapsed about 1000 years ago, leaving behind a veritable ghost town. Some modern theorists believe that climate change was the culprit.
Rarely has a civilization gained so much fame for a single piece of art, but then again, this single artwork was replicated dozens of times. The famous “heads” (or Moai) of Easter Island (which were eventually discovered to have underground bodies, which is objectively super cool), are all that is left of the mysterious people who once occupied the remote island.
Easter Island is far away from any other civilization, even by Polynesian standards. This means that one small group of ocean-faring people likely loaded into a canoe, found Easter Island, created some iconic statues, and then either left or died. Modern research suggests the island’s inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, may have destroyed their own livelihood through resource depletion.
The Nabta Playa were a remarkable people, described as ancient astronomers of the Nubian Desert. This civilization existed more than 11,000 years ago, and were the first culture to leave evidence behind of astronomical inquest.
They created countless stone structures meant to track the movements of the stars, which likely laid the groundwork for other ancient civilizations to pick up the study. The Nabta Playa people lived in a harsh desert environment, which helps explain why they didn’t leave much other information behind, although some believe that they were the ancestors of future Nile civilizations.
Chances are if you know anything about the Olmecs, it’s due to the gigantic stone heads they left lying around. You know, like the one that once hosted a game show or the one that famously occupies The Simpsons’ basement. The Olmec culture likely had more to it than giant, menacing heads, but it’s been hard to find out exactly what that is.
The Olmecs, who occupied the same basic area as the mysterious Mayans 1200 years before their rise, fell victim to the same reforestation that has obscured Mayan history. The Olmecs spread their empire for over 900 years, establishing the pattern that future South American empires would follow, before mysteriously vanishing around 300 BC.
Sometimes, we encounter a mysterious civilization from history that we really don’t want to know more about. Such is the case with the Silla, a civilization that, despite ruling Korea for over a thousand years, left behind very few intact skeletons due to the soil on the peninsula.
One of the complete sets of bones happened to belong to a young woman with a grotesquely elongated skull, something that archaeologists believe was a natural occurrence. Maybe we don’t need to learn more about this peninsula-spanning mutant empire, after all. There are enough nightmares in the world.
As far as ancient histories go, China’s is incredibly well-documented. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few gaps left to fill. The Sanxingdui were apparently a powerful empire in ancient China that left behind a surprisingly small amount of physical evidence. They appear to have been wiped completely off the map about 3,000 years ago.
Modern geological studies have shown that a massive earthquake shook their region around the time of their disappearance. This may have diverted their primary water source, leading to their civilization’s quick demise.
People Of Punt
No, this isn’t a mysterious island full of American footballers. Instead, the people of Punt are a near-mythical civilization that operated with and around several ancient African nations, including Egypt. Egyptian records speak of many trading expeditions to the land of Punt, but to this date, no modern archaeologist has been able to figure out exactly where that was.
Punt was apparently a very wealthy land, with treasures and resources that rivaled the Egyptians, and yet there is very little evidence of them trading with anyone other than Egypt, or going to war with anyone at all. One would think a rich land in the middle of Africa would have been ripe for invasion, but nothing like that seems to have ever happened. If anyone ever actually discovered Punt’s location, they didn’t write it down.
The Sea PeoplesThe Sea Peoples are easily some of the coolest people in history, but you’ve probably never heard of them. The Sea Peoples were a group of naval raiders that terrorized the Mediterranean region for almost a century, between 1276 and 1178 BC.
Their primary targets were the Egyptians and the Hittite Empire, but nobody knows where they came from themselves. All that is recorded is that they sailed in from out of nowhere, raided Mediterranean lands, and then sailed back off into the sunset. Of course, they frequently returned to wreak more havoc. A pirate-viking empire existed in the ancient world, and they managed to keep their secret base hidden to history. How awesome is that?
You may have heard of the Gobekli Tepe during the ramblings of the Ancient Aliens crew on the History Channel. That’s because the architecture found amidst the ruins of this mysterious civilization appears far too advanced, which lends itself to speculation about extraterrestrial intervention (if you’re into that sort of thing).
The original site, a temple found in modern day Turkey, dates back between 13,000 and 12,000 years, yet contains architectural techniques that would not be seen again for millennia. Subsequent digs have revealed the location to be much more expansive than previously thought.
Austronesians Of Madagascar
The genealogical history of Africa reveals a fairly straightforward story of competing civilizations overrunning one another, with the curious exception of the island of Madagascar.
The original inhabitants of Madagascar appear to be Austronesian in origin, the only such people anywhere near that part of the world. The language spoken on Madagascar was most similar to that spoken in Borneo, which was 4,000 miles away. Anthropologists are still unsure as to exactly how these people reached their new home, although an epic naval journey seems certain. The existence of this civilization has been likened to Columbus arriving in the Caribbean and discovering a singular island full of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swedes.